Mediterranean crisis demands ‘intensive dialogue’ among UN and regional actors, Security Council told

Medics carry a young man on a stretcher off the Italian Coastguard vessel Gregoretti when it reached Palermo in Sicily after rescuing people from the Mediterranean. Photo: UNHCR/F. Malavolta

11 May 2015 – The Mediterranean migrant crisis calls for collective action focused on the immediate need to save lives or else it will represent “a moral failure of the first order,” one that undermines international law and security, a top United Nations migration official warned today.

As the Security Council gathered to discuss cooperation between the UN and regional organizations, Peter Sutherland, the UN Special Representative for International Migration briefed on the refugee and mixed migratory crisis in the Mediterranean, where in the first 150 days of 2015 alone, some 1,800 people drowned attempting escape to Europe from their own strife-torn homelands.

He outlined priorities for the collective response to the situation, including through an urgent focus on saving lives, boosting law enforcement against smugglers, increasing safe avenues for refugee resettlements, greater solidarity with countries closer to conflict, and intensifying efforts to end conflicts that are driving people away.

“The situation in the Mediterranean represents – first and foremost – a security crisis for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in harm’s way: those risking their lives to cross the seas, those trapped and abused in transit countries, those fleeing conflicts, natural disasters, and other threats to their lives and livelihoods,” Mr. Sutherland told the 15-member Council.

The Security Council also heard from Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Téte António, Permanent Observer for the African Union, ahead of this week’s meeting of the European Commission that aims to approve an agenda on migration.

Spotlighting the breadth of the challenge, he said the 1,800 deaths on the Mediterranean in the first month of the year represent a 20-fold increase over the same period last year – and at this pace, between 10,000 and 20,000 migrants would perish by autumn. About one third of those crossing the Mediterranean are Syrian refugees. Thousands more are from Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan and other nations.

In a single weekend in April, 900 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

“It is a collective responsibility to act,” said Mr. Sutherland, who a month ago was appointed to an informal group tasked with UN’s response to the migratory crisis.

The European Union has recently pledged to triple its resources and must commit to search-and-rescue as its first priority, he said, calling on Europe and Africa to develop a common strategy to deal with smugglers and traffickers.

“This will not be easy,” he said. “It demands better governance and coordinated law enforcement efforts along the entire routes of migratory movements.”

The stakes are high for organized crime – moving people illegally across borders is today more lucrative than the sale of illicit arms and drugs. All enforcement measures will have to adhere to international human rights, humanitarian, maritime, and refugee law, Mr. Sutherland said.

He called for more attention to the challenges of small countries like Lebanon and Jordan, which are together hosting more than 1.8 million refugees from Syria. In Lebanon’s case, this represents almost a quarter of its population and half of the refugees are children, a majority of whom are not in school. The burden cannot fall on the few.

“We need more resettlement countries. We need larger resettlement quotas. Only half of the 28 EU Member States are resettlement countries,” he urged.

Mr. Sutherland also spotlighted the responsibility of those countries where inequality, dysfunctional governance and poverty drive people to migrate. “They need to be accountable toward their own citizens and create conditions where everyone can benefit from economic and social advancement,” he said.

In the meantime, the international community needs to offer far more aid to countries close to conflict zones, to ensure the safety of refugees and migrants, educate their children, and offer real hope for the future.

Mr. Sutherland urged the need to address the larger problems we gave including the root causes –‘conflict that go on for years on end, authoritarian governments that abuse their citizens, demographic challenges that seem to grow exponentially.”

While it is easy enough to turn away from troubles that seem intractable – “every problem, broken down, can be ameliorated.”

At the most basic level, he said, there is a need to engage in a systematic, intense dialogue among countries of origin, transit, and destination. He also emphasized the need to include migrants and refugees in the post-2015 UN development agenda.

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